Off Piste Conduct

Avalanches > Search and Rescue > Searching for Avalanche Victims > Off Piste Conduct

We have all seen the extreme ski videos and photos in the magazines. Groups skiing in perfect synchronicity and whooping it up in the powder. They'll probably be hey duding each other and bashing out hi-fives at the end of the run. However the fact remains that it is much easier to mount a search for a single skier than a group. In the Winter of 1994 a group of four British doctors and their guide were avalanched near Val d'Isère (admittedly they were skiing in an avalanche risk of 5), the sole survivor would have had to mount a search for five victims on his own. Had he been sufficiently trained in using his transceiver he would have had a confusion of different signals plus five bodies to dig-out. There was no chance of them surviving.

"One at a time" - the Golden Rule for Off-Piste Skiing

So the golden rule is that in avalanche terrain, in particular steep open wind loaded north sector slopes or couloirs, only one skier should be skiing or boarding ata time. This avoids skiers or boarders interfering with each other which can lead to accidents that are altogether more serious when off-piste and should an avalanche occur the rest of the group can search, alert rescue services and help dig.

While the person is skiing the other members of the group should wait in safer areas - on mounds, behind rock outcrops and definitely not in the path of a potential avalanche. Exposed traverses should be test skied by a single group member, maybe even roped. When traversing or climbing together in danger areas keep a large, even gap between skiers. A point that has come up after a, thankfully non-fatal avalanche incident on the Albaron mountain, always make sure the rest of your group know where you are - do not proceed ahead without first discussing your route and making sure your buddies are keeping an eye on you.

Group Think

This vaguely Orwellian phrase has been coined by psychologists to describe how people behave when part of a group. It has a lot of relevance for backcountry travellers. In particular the following points may be applicable to groups in the backcountry:

  1. An illusion of invulnerability. Members ignore obvious danger, are too optimistic and take on more risk than they would if skiing alone.
  2. Collective Rationalization: Members discredit or explain away any warning contrary to group thinking.
  3. Pressure for Conformity: Members pressure any in the group who express arguments against the group ideas.
  4. Self-Censorship: Members withhold their dissenting views
  5. Illusion of Unanimity: Members may incorrectly perceive all other members agree with the group's decision; silence is taken as consent.
  6. Mindguards: Some members protect the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.

In the backcountry Group Think is dangerous. There are some standard ways to combat Group Think, just being aware of the problem is a help. Group members should give priority to airing objections and doubts and be open to criticism, unpopular alternatives (e.g. turn around, shallower slope) should be advocated. Decisions making tools such as the Nivotest can help evaluate the factors that contribute to avalanche conditions and choose between alternative routes.

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